Thursday, 7 February 2008

Milestones's so cold. Come in and sit by the fire and join me. Let me get you a hot chocolate and may be a doughnut?

I have been thinking lately, how it is that I struggled to see any improvement in my work these last few years since I really started trying to write. I couldn't really find any milestones by which I could say, for instance, look in April last year I finally grabbed the concept of pace.

Then, last week, my thirteen year old son asked me to help him write a short story for his English homework. Now I have no aversion to helping him cheat because it's so rare that I actually can. So I wrote a story with the given title of Disaster at the Wedding. The last time I had done this was about eighteen months ago with a short ghost story his class had been set. I had thought at the time that the story I wrote back then, was pretty good but when I wrote Disaster at the Wedding - and yes, I ended up writing it all while he and his hamster watched Die Hard 56 or whatever - it was so much better. Really it was - I was amazed. I still only got an A minus. We were robbed!

So I would love to know have you been able to find these elusive milestones. Can you point to a time or a project and see that that was the point you realized your work had improved, matured or that you found your voice or understood an element of the writing craft which had eluded you before?

Just edited this to say that the long list of the wannabe comp is on the website: Edited yet again...I was so hoping there would be one of us in the long listed but I guess not.


CTaylor said...

It's a tricky question to answer because I still find it hard to view work I wrote last year, for example, objectively.

That said I KNOW I'm a much better writer than I was eight years ago. I've still got a bundle of short stories I wrote back then (long before I discovered online writing communities and 'how to' books on the craft of writing) and, looking back at those stories, I can see quite how bad they are. And I know why.

With my novel writing it's much harder to know if I've moved on and achieved any milestones because I'm still to close to my book, though I CAN see that my rewrite is making it better (particularly pace-wise). One thing I picked up recently (that hadn't really occured to me before) is that you don't need transitional scenes in a book. e.g. Mrs X is at home in London. She needs to get up to Scotland urgently. Unless something particularly interesting happens on the journey up there YOU DON'T NEED TO INCLUDE IT! You can just skip to her arriving in Scotland. The reader fills in the gap. So yes, that's my latest revelation - if nothing interesting happens in a scene just cut it. You're unlikely to lose the reader.

K.Imaginelli said...

Yay! I finally made it to a coffee break early (though this is more like a midnight snack in my corner of the world).

Thanks for the hot chocolate & the great topic, Fiona!

I think the key to this question (at least for me) is in CTaylor's post:
I can see quite how bad they are. And I know why.
Writing my second novel and the time I've spent typing up the notebooks for it show me how far I've come. Now I can look at a passage and see why it doesn't work or why certain bits of dialogue or character interiority don't ring true. (I do suspect, however, that learning to fix these problem spots that I can now identify will take a bit of trial & error). But being able to pick out why the story, character, scene, etc isn't work seems to be a major step in one's growth as a writer. Hmmm....this might explain why I had the compulsion to outline a new plot for my first novel because it suddenly became so clear to me where I'd gone wrong with it.

Thanks for letting me go to be feeling truly accomplished, Fiona. ;)

Helen Shearer said...

Hello racers!

Interesting question. I can't put my finger on any sort of milestone or Eureka! moment when I realized my writing had improved or matured, but I certainly have gone back and read old stuff and thought 'What the hell was I thinking when I wrote this?' I suppose every once in a while I write something that gets me excited and makes me think that I might have a hope of doing this for a living but I try not to get too wrapped up in it because invariably, five minutes later usually, I write something that is utter crap and I come crashing back to earth.

liz fenwick said...

Great question Fiona.

I have had a few thanks to others pushing in the right direction that forced my writing to turn a corner - ie. being told to read Sol Stein's Solutions for Writers. Since that turning point my writing style has improved dramitcally (I don't overwrite as much).

I am also finding that the more I am writing the freer I am becoming with my own voice - whether that is is better or not I don't know!

I think I can say that the 'grades' I have been receiving have been improving - the rejections are personal and helpful.

A freind said on Monday that what she was really looking forward to seeing was the book that is waiting to be written now knowing the progress I have made thus far. So if others are seeing it then something is happening even I can't always feel it myself:-)

Well done on the A-!

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

You know how I'm so careful about my anonymity? For the first time in three and a half years of blogging, I feel compelled to reveal my identity - I am your son's teacher, please see me after class!!! And no, you can't buy me off with hot chocolate and a doughnut... oh all right then, maybe you can! ;-))

There have been many 'a-HA!' moments where I've understood a particular 'element of the writing craft' and therefore my writing has improved. I had a similar realisation to Cally's about transitional scenes. Also that my dialogue worked much better when I didn't make it so sequential. These moments have generally been as a result of external input from a how-to book, someone on a course, or a reader.

The most recent way I know I've improved is that I've started writing short stories again, something I've struggled with in the past, and it's considerably less difficult than it used to be AND they're not nearly as bad as the ones I used to write. I think it's because I've finally got the idea that the theme needs to permeate every sentence of the story, and because I'm applying all the improved writing skills I've learned in the last two and a half years while I've been writing and rewriting my novel.

Anonymous said...

The first milestone for me was when I finally decided to let other people see my work. Gulp. That meant my writing had gone from "who knows" how good, to "people kind of liked it".

The next milestone would be when other writers told me I'd improved. You know who you are. That was very helpful. Thanks.

Still pondering over what the next milestone might be...

Oh and could "Jan Maltby" possibly be someone atmospheric with a helical nature?

SpiralSkies said...

Aaarrrrghh... I wish it was me! I was quite excited when I saw 'my' name. But then I realised I'm 'Jen' not 'Jan'and I hadn't actually got round to entering!!

Great question about the milestones, Fiona. Personally, I can't see at all when/if I've improved at all over the time I've been writing.

The more I learn, the more I realise I don't know. Torture.

Well, I just finished writing The Novel last night so, in a month or two, I'll be boring you all with how crap I am. Bet you're really looking forward to that, eh?

Maybe I'll change y name to 'Jan' and steal someone else's talent?

Cathy said...

Being able to show my writing to others was probably the biggest step. I did that first through an online OU writing course, which was less intimidating than having to read it out in public. Getting feedback is so important, it shows you what is good and bad in your own work. Positive feedback from writers whose own work you admire is esecially encouraging, I find!

I can look back now on things I wrote a couple of years ago and see that I have improved in some ways which is encouraging, because I was very much a beginner then. I think I write with more creativity and conviction now. But I know I still have a lot to learn.

Lane said...

Doughnuts! Thank you Fiona and great question. A minus is great!

Having a piece accepted for publication or winning a competition is always a milestone (and that hasn't happened in a while) but one milestone that sticks in my mind was giving a group of students some pieces of writing to dissect. I slipped in one of my own and was heartened that 1)they enjoyed it and 2) they didn't twig it wasn't a published author.
Re. improving? Like most people I look back and blanch at what I have considered 'good'. Much of it was over-written and laboured. Hopefully I'm learning to relax.

Jen. Are you sure it's not you. I was so hoping. Well done on finishing your novel!

Lucy Diamond said...

Congrats Jen!!! (And Jan...) Wow, well done. That must feel great. Hope you've got your Friday night dancing shoes ready for a celebration.
Me, I'd love a hot chocolate and oh, go on then, I'll cave in and have a doughnut too. Yum.

A milestone for me was, like the good Captain Black, showing my work to friends. And not having them wince and look embarrassed.

Another milestone was learning to cut redundant passages without crying over all those lost words. I quite like hacking through my prose now with a red pen.

My most recent milestone 'as an author' has been public speaking to hundreds of people about writing and being a writer. Terrifying and something I thought I'd never do - but my god, the buzz afterwards is better than any illegal substance I've ever sampled!

I'm up to 52,000 words now on the new novel so have passed the halfway about everyone else?

Fiona said...

Jen...Forgive me? Thought it had to be because you got such fabulous feedback on the taster you showed us. I would rush out and buy your book. Your writing is great - not rubbish.

You should have entered. Smacked legs.

Lazy Perfectionista said...

Hey there fellow Racers! Sorry I didn't show up for the last two weeks - I was on holiday then went down with something nasty just after I got back. I'm all recovered now and writing again after spending several days wrapped in a duvet feeling sorry for myself.

My first writing milestone was the realisation that if you want to write, it helps to, well, start writing. It was in the back of my mind for several years, when I kept wanting to 'be a writer' but never actually got round to putting pen to paper. I think this was partly a confidence thing, but it's behind me now and my word count is currently growing at a fairly steady rate!

My next milestone was telling people that this was what I was doing. It's so much easier writing now that I have people asking me how it's going, and I don't want to have to say 'Oh, I haven't done any for a while, but I will soon!' - great motivational tactic...

Leatherdykeuk said...

I see milestones only when they've passed. My first big win was in an erotic sex book (here) and when I look back on it now I cringe at the clunky writing. Oops. The same with the first book I wrote (which may or may not be out this year: my latest ones are so much better.

I didn't make the wannabe a writer longlist.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Oh, very little writing this week, and none on the novel.

hesitant scribe said...

Firstly - you naughty girl! Doing homework! I'm giving you a virtual slap on the wrist! I'm a terrible mother because when my teenager does poorly in English, I go through it with a red pen! 9 times out of 10 I'd have given it less than she got, and she knows this. Oh dear.

As for milestones. Hmm.
1. Going to a writing course when I was 23 and learning that I could show people work and the world would not implode.
2. Choosing Education as a minor for my degree and the faculty cocking it up and putting me in Creative Writing instead - which lead to me doing an MA in writing, and now my PhD.
3. Winning an article writing comp, and getting a few bits published... can't be all that crap after all.
4. Realising that I have to do a lot more work if I'm going to get anywhere in this game - the novel racers has taught me this as I've watched everyone finish their novels and I'm still lagging behind! Boo Hoo!

Rowan Coleman said...

I just spent AGES writing a witty and erudite comment full of wisom and sage like genius and then lost it. So here is the truncated version.
1. I wish I had written as much as Lucy.
2.I had exactly the same revelation as Cally over scene jumping six year back. I suggest we racers make a list of out top ten obvious writing tips for eacother for futue reference.
3. My biggest milstone was realising I had to work through the tough patches becuase you can edit, fix, and rewrite what is there but you can't fix what isn't.
4.Also Winning Company Magazine Young Writer of the Year in 2001 which kicked me off on the path I am now on and for which I am ever grateful.
5. Then there was a HILARIOUS anecdote about a public speaking event I did. But now I have run out of time. I'll blog about it sometime. Oh and also another dya of Brief Encounter is going up today.

take care!

Rowan Coleman said...

p.s sorry about the dreadful typos, the first version was immaculate, honest!

Graeme K Talboys said...

Good topic! (Dunks doughnut and ponders; gets distracted; dunks another doughnut.)

I think the first was when I went to college. All my contemporaries at school were musicians (one or two biggish names) so I didn't have a chance to talk about or compare my writing with others. At college this changed and it was hard to begin with although there supportive tutors and a lot of my friends were just as eager to learn as I was. So that first lesson was in positive critiquing, always looking for ways to improve work.

The next big milestone was getting published for the first time - articles in magazines and so on. It was a validation, not so much that I could write but that others thought I could.

And then the first book. That was a whole bunch of milestones as it was funded by a grant from the Hild & Bede Trust. Convincing a university to part with a substantial sum of money based on an outline, being allowed to use their facilities, and then finding a publisher. I was floating for a very long time.

Another was on finishing a novel (that was due for publication), realising it was dull and rewriting the whole thing in the first person - finding the fire in the story. Only to have the publisher go bust owing me a large sum of money. Another milestone in realising writers are at the bottom of the food chain and often get poked with the pointy, sh*t end of the stick.

The most recent was when I took the OU's second level CW course. I'd had fiction published before, but it wasn't until I went back to basics with the course that I found what I had been struggling to find for a long time. My voice. Rather, my new voice. It's evolved and I love it. Others seem to as well as I post chapters as they are written on an OU forum and it's a real kick to see how many people read and download the latest installment.

Sorry to have wittered on for so long. I'm an old bloke and a lot has happened (and I don't get out much).

Now, what did I do with that doughnut?

Graeme K Talboys said...

Oh. Writing. Big restructure which means I'm about half way through the w-i-p rather than three quarters. Doing lots of extra research at the moment.

Also done some editorial work on someone else's book.

Kate.Kingsley said...

Hello all, and fab topic, Fiona.

I'm struggling to think about milestones t the moment, as I'm in a bit of a slump where I don't feel that I'm improving or moving forward. Didn't make it onto the Wannabe shortlist, either.... boo.

But I guess I would say that getting my first magazine publication (writer's forum) and gaining a distinction in A215 (OU creative writing course) are points of note. And those are the sort of acheivements I should also remind myself of when feeling a bit doldrum-y, like now.

So, in the course of this post I've actually managed to buoy myself up a bit ~ cheers for that. Fiona!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Thinking about milestones, I'd have to say the biggest one I hit was a brick wall. After I finished my first book and began collecting rejections, I almost quit writing. (In fact, I did quit for about 9 months.) Finally, when I couldn't take not writing anymore, I waded back in - but only after long serious discussions with myself that a few rejections do not mean I suck, and I'm a good writer, and regardless of what anyone else thinks, I'm going to write dammit. Not that rejections still don't effect me, but I don't think I'll ever pull that quitting crap on myself again. I'll quit when I'm dead. ;o)

Other than that, I just try to learn and grow as I go, and I can see the progress from book to book. =oD

sheepish said...

Hi everyone, good topic and I'll definitely have a doughnut please. I have only really had one milestone and that was when I actually got the idea for what I wanted to write. I have always wanted to write but without a storyline its a bit difficult!! So I just had to be patient, now I have the story and some days it's good and other days I just want to give up.
My next milestone will be finishing the first draft, which has been put back somewhat by our impending move, but I know that our new location is going to inspire me,so I can't wait for the move.
I have found that having all the other racers around helps keep my morale up, so thanks to all of you.

CTaylor said...

Bum. Didn't enter the Wannabe A Writer comp because I was hoping Nice Mr Agent was about to snap me up. Hmmm.

Um...writing wise. I'm still only 28% through my rewrite for the aforementioned Nice (but can be a bit Blunt) Mr Agent. Must pull finger out and work harder.

L-Plate Author said...

Hi everyone, happy Friday!

Milestones, where to begin. The first has got to be getting my agent….I suppose the second must be losing her, sigh. It hit me hard when she left me in the lurch and, like BASanderson, for a few months my head was low and I didn’t do anything. I suppose that’s why I’m terrified about getting out there again.

For my writing, milestones happened with every draft for book one and then drafting out book two was aa completely new one. Every draft I completed, and there were many, for book one with the agent got better and better and would reveal something different every time. Like Lucy Diamond, I too love to go through it all with a red pen. In my second book, I tried to make every scene count, which is why I don’t feel I had to take much out. It was well planned out, I wrote 30,000 words before I started drafting anything and it worked for me. That’s what I’ll always do now.

But the one true milestone for me is everyone who has read book one, my chick lit book, has cried buckets at the end. For me there is no better endorsement, even though the beginning and middle might not be to an agent's perfection!

One final thing, this time last year my agent was ready to send book one out to a publisher. The agent who I have been working with and another one who has looked at my work since don’t like the first three chapters of that book, so make of that what you will. Because my previous agent gave it the okay, I didn’t think to change the beginning. Looking at it now, there’s too much tell not show, too much background straight away. So I suppose that’s another milestone. Not every agent likes the same thing. God, so which way do I go now??????

Debs said...

Great post, Fiona and congratulations on the A-.

One milestone for me was making the most of a Daily Mail offer and having 24 copies of my first novel printed up in book form. I then took a deep breath and gave copies to members of my family so that if I never do get published then at least they have something on their book shelf (whether the read it or not) that shows them why I've spent so much time locked in a shed. I did get some great feedback too but then they are family, so they have to be nice.

I can see the improvement in my writing now to pieces that I wrote last year and the years before, which is a relief as some of it is dreadful.

Ashley Ladd said...

I've found that you have to keep writing, keep studying the craft of writing, work with a critique partner or group. Editing is necessary, sometimes more than once. Sometimes you have to let the story sit for a few weeks or even a few months and then look at it again with fresh eyes.

Good luck and keep writing. Have you submitted your book(s) to any publishers yet?

Fiona said...

Great comments from everyone - thank you.

I found so much useful advice in your thoughts and I wondered if I could cut excerpts out and put up in a post sometime - just here, on NRs?

I also love Rowan's idea:'I suggest we racers make a list of out top ten obvious writing tips for each other for future reference.'

If anyone wants to do this, just reply to this or email me at: and I'll put it up as one post. Maybe then someone clever with IT stuff - Pretty please, Captain? - could make sure it's easily accessible to us?

Fiona said...

Ashley...thanks for dropping by.

Personally, I haven't submitted my novel anywhere as I'm still editing it but we have a mixture of writers here - 'pre-published', 'with agents', 'published'

Some of us have published ourselves, some on our blogs and some via publishing houses.

Pop round again any time...

Anonymous said...

Regarding the writing tips: We could put them here on the NR blog. Ideally as a fixed page element (rather than a posting) so that they stay in an easily accessible place and don't disappear off into the archives over time.

Just an idea for you. I'm not even an official NR member!

L-Plate Author said...

Maybe we should write a book between us. The Novel Racers guide that would be a challenge!

Rowan Coleman said...

I'm all up for a top tip novel racers guide, I think our diversity of experience makes this sight a wealth of knowledge. I'll me e-mail my top obvious tip later!


First please excuse my brief absence form the coffee scene, I know you didnt even notice I was missing, sad sobs escaping here rfom crets falen writer. I have been so tied up with my other creative side ie designing and painting ceramic tiles that writing has died or at least gone into some sort of suspended animation. This is very frustrating indeed as I love doing both but there does not seem to be time.

I am not sure I oculd pinpoint a milestoen but do like the idea of a list of tip[s and wrinkles!!

wordtryst said...

I am so very late, and I missed the coffee and doughnuts, but here goes...

The first draft of novel number one was 15,000 words too short for the publisher who first showed interest. Three years after I wrote it, I added several chapters and reworked the story. When I began the editing process, I could see the difference between the first section and the last - I had been learning as the years passed. I had a great time cutting out extraneous adverbs and dialogue tags, trying to show and not tell, etc. The realization of how I'd improved without knowing it was the first milestone.

Like someone higher in the comment chain mentioned, when you can see what's wrong in earlier work and you know how to fix it, you realize there's been growth.

The second was when I got the agent. She's an experienced lady with an awesome sales record, and when she called and said she loved the writing I could not get over it. I still can't. This wasn't my friend slash first reader being nice, this was the agent!